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MLS TV Ratings Worrying

616px kenny cooper MLS TV Ratings Worrying

Maybe I was simply delusional. Perhaps I was drinking the Kool Aid. This past April on EPL Talk.com I had engaged in a back and forth dialogue with the publisher of that site, Christopher Harris (aka the Gaffer) arguing the English Premier League would always have a niche following in the US and that Major League Soccer was already more popular on TV and would grow remarkably in popularity as a televised sport in the near future, as opposed to the EPL whose fan support in this country was at a ceiling and based primarily on ex-pats.

At the time Fox Soccer Channel was not Nielsen rated and my theory was based on instinct and the opinions of those who I speak with (most of whom are very pro MLS and US Soccer and not particularly enamored with the Premier League) not any sort of empirical evidence. Well now the evidence is in and could not have been more wrong about the viewership for both leagues.

According to the latest issue of the Sports Business Journal published by Street and Smith’s (now the parent company of the Sporting News incidentally)  MLS TV ratings are about as bad as can be imagined. ESPN2′s Thursday night rating fell this season and the telecasts averaged a 0.2 rating and was watched in an average of 251,000 homes weekly. ESPN 2 has achieved higher average ratings in prime time for such sports as Poker and Bowling in the last year. However, those sports have limited upside potential when compared with Football. But Football in the US fans clearly aren’t enamored with MLS: US National Team telecasts on ESPN and ESPN have averaged a 0.6 rating this year and the Euros averaged a 0.8 on the networks. The lack of viewership on ESPN 2 is a major concern as the network has invested a rights fee in the league for the first time. Despite the signing of David Beckham, MLS averaged less viewers in 2008 on ESPN2 than the league did in 2006 before Beckham was signed and before the new TV deal took affect.  But even more worrying is that MLS games averaged according to BNet a 0.5 rating on ESPN and a 0.3 rating on ESPN 2 for the 1998 season. MLS also averaged a 0.9 rating on ABC that season, when the network broadcast 13 regular season games.  The lone ABC telecast this season between the league’s two most successful clubs historically, garnered a 1.1 rating as a lead in to the Euro 2008 final which achieved a 3.2 rating. So in essence a smaller percentage of TV viewers nationally are watching MLS in 2008 than did in 1998, despite the league having more of a mainstream media presence and having two more franchises. I would note that personally I probably watched more MLS games in 1998 and 1999 than I have in 2007 and 2008 because the league despite the funny clock rules seemed to have better quality to it in those days and some teams like DC United circa 1996-1999 were in my mind as entertaining to watch as any club in the world. MLS currently does not provide that sort of entertainment and looking at these figures I am not alone in believing that.

On the lighter side what should be encouraging is that few viewers if any have tuned in for late season and playoff games from Foxborough where reported attendances in the 5,000-7,500 range have looked generous and dishonest.

Fox Soccer Channel has been Nielsen rated now for about a month. This has been a good thing for the network to prove to potential advertisers that people do tune in for their early morning EPL matches. Matches involving Manchester United or Liverpool have averaged 211,000 viewers on the network. In fact when you consider that FSC is in less than 1/3 the homes that have ESPN2, the Premier League ratings when matched up with the MLS Thursday Primetime ratings are most impressive. Also consider the time of the Premier League matches: often times very early in the morning on the west coast of the U.S. and still at an odd time on the east coast of the US.

MLS ratings on FSC have not been as encouraging for the sport. The matchup between Chivas USA and Houston, the top two teams in the west got a rare 0.0 rating and was viewed in only 24,000 homes. Including the first weekend of the playoffs, FSC is averaging 30,000 viewers for MLS Saturday night matches.

Thirteen years into the life of Major League Soccer and the league seems to be having little success winning core football fans over and worse yet as the sport grows in popularity stateside, MLS seems to be left behind. the hardcore niche audience watching and supporting the league is more passionate than ever, but if this league is to truly succeed we cannot continue to see the regression of TV numbers. It is somewhat unfortunate and unfair but TV ratings are the surest determination many in the media and on Madison Avenue use to ascertain the popularity of a sporting product. With this in mind, MLS has much work to do.

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About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the EPL Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the book Blue With Envy about Manchester City FC.
View all posts by Kartik Krishnaiyer →

23 Responses to MLS TV Ratings Worrying

  1. Wendell Gee says:

    For what it's worth, TV ratings less than 1.0 are within the margin of error, so comparisons are a waste of time. And the 5000+ reported in Foxboro looked about right to me, based on the extremely inaccurate naked eye gauge.

    And I can' t imagine why you thought MLS would do so well vis a vis the EPL. I see people wearing EPL jerseys all over the place. I see maybe one MLS jersey a year
    - and some years not even that.

  2. USA Fan says:

    You seem surprised by this.

    As Wendell Gee said who in their right mind would believe MLS clubs have the support EPL clubs do here in the US.

    Even at MLS games as many people wear EPL kits!

    The TV ratings are worrying, if you worry about MLS. Some of us realized after the Beckham hype died down that the league is actually regressing with less player development and good young talent than ever before and checked out.

    The league was better in 1998. The previous golden generation of American players were all in MLS at the time along with Valderrama, Donadoni, Etcheverry, Cienfuegos, etc. Why you feel you need to compare 1998 with quality foreign players to 2008 with pin up models Beckham and Ljunberg making up the foreign contingent is silly. The results the league had in those days in CONCACAF and the TV ratings you list speak for itself as does the 2002 US World Cup team made up primarily of guys who had been in MLS between 1996 and 2000. The current US team has fewer and fewer MLS players and that speaks loudly of where the league is currently and obviously the viewers agree with that assessment.

  3. Stanley says:

    No offense to MLS, but even if you are an avid football/soccer fan and have a limited number of hours to watch each week, why would you CHOOSE MLS over any of the other top leagues available on TV? I can understand it if you support a local MLS team, but as someone coming into the game…there's no reason.
    I was born a Liverpool supporter and have spent years going to bars at the crack of dawn to see my team play, and I watch whatever else I have time for. After LFC matches I don't even find myself watching as many other Premiership games, since I now get La Liga which is an incredible treat for a football fan. I can't see switching to an MLS game if I have the choice. Unless I became an avid supporter of a local team — which would make all failings superfluous to the need to follow my club.
    This is what is needed in the U.S., local fan bases. It won't start with viewers, who have only a passing interest, tuning in on TV. It's not a great medium for the sport and only fantastic teams would come off well enough to keep viewers coming back.

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  5. Eric says:

    The quality of play may have been better in 1998 but the SSS really help from the perspective of going to the matches.

    Attendance is up over the last ten years by about 2,000 per game. That could account for your decline in TV ratings.

    Bottom line: Things need to get better for MLS no doubt. The TV ratings are poor, the mainstream media coverage almost non existent. But ESPN has committed through the 2014 season so we still have time.

  6. humstein says:

    For a young league MLS is doing quite well.
    The object for a 12 year old league is establish a loyal fan base not set the TV world on fire.
    By that standard the fact that MLS is now averaging more than 16,000 per game is a more important metric than tv ratings.

    Perry

  7. undrafted says:

    It's not completely an “either or” situation. Why bother with MLS? For starters, tickets are expensive to fly to Europe to watch games in person. And European leagues aren't exactly overflowing with US players. Some good young US players spend years in MLS.

    The TV ratings would be worrying if they had ever been good to start with. It's not like they're falling. TV money is not yet an important part of funding MLS. That's why the salary cap is so low. Considering that the league has recently signed deals with ESPN, Fox, HDNET, and Telemundo, it seems the broadcasters are willing to be patient.

    It's certainly an issue. And worth considering a problem. But there's little need to worry just yet. MLS on TV isn't going to be as good as the EPL on TV anytime soon. MLS knows it. ESPN knows it.

    There might not have been 5k at New England's game, but I wouldn't call it “dishonest” since all they ever have and probably ever will report is “tickets distributed” not “viewers present”. On one weeks notice and given the conditions, people with tickets in hand decided not to go. Few sporting events report turnstyle numbers. It'd be nice to know, but tough luck. 1st week playoff attendance is and has been horrible. It's something MLS needs to work on. I've yet to hear a good alternative.

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  9. Joey Zaza says:

    There are still new teams to be added and new stadiums to be built. Ljungberg has accompanied Beckham and there has been rumors of other huge names like Figo, Ronaldo, and Henry circulating around the soccer forums. There is some great talent being found in Central and South America and more domestic players are being considered by foreign leagues.

    The road to a powerhouse football league will be long but the MLS seems to be doing a lot to try to attain viewership. This year I have been to about six Redbulls home games where as in the past I have only been to international friendlies. I have always tried to follow the team but this year myself and friends have been attending games and watching matches instead of just following the next day in the news. I hope one day the league is able to have the support that other sports in the US share but until that day comes I am happy enough to follow my team.

  10. Cavan says:

    Stanley, I follow MLS for two reasons:

    1) I can hop on the Metro and go watch DC United. I can't do that for any European team.

    2) Why would I want to watch a league that is made up of haves and have-nots? Hmm… Manchester United vs. Sunderland (or other debt-ridden bottom feeder) gee, I wonder how that's going to play out? 200 million dollar payroll vs. a 2 million dollar payroll. Yeah, that's real fair. That's legitimate competition. Why bother paying to watch when you know that only four teams have any chance of winning anyway? European club soccer is like the end of a game of Monopoly. You have a couple of big winners and everyone else is going broke. How is that entertaining? In MLS, any team can win on any given day. The better ones sort themselves out over an entire season. Any team can build over 2-3 years and become a good team. In order to become a good team, you have build a core of players and a system. This year, the Columbus Crew is an excellent example of taking a couple of years to build a core of players and a system. No one can just buy the MLS Cup. That's entertaining. Watching European club soccer is like great if you love to see the strong brutalize the weak every week.

  11. Xavier says:

    I think Kartik's point about watching DC United in the early days of the league and being entertained more than any MLS side today is very well taken.

    In the early days ESPN showed two games a week and also showed a weekly highlights show called extra time or direct kick or something. They built the brand. But as the salary cap kicked in and the early foreign stars left or retired the league never replaced those players with comparable products.

    You can piss on Stanley all you want but I am in a camp of people who watched MLS closely in the early days but now have so much more soccer to choose from across the globe and anytime I watch MLS now, I do not see the compelling games or the skill level of the midfielders that I did then. It's an easy choice to watch La Liga or Serie A instead.

  12. John says:

    MLS has become more and more a waste of time the last few years. I'm not even watching the playoffs myself, and I used to live for the league.

  13. ultratroll says:

    The MLS's fortunes will rise once Miami enters the league. FCBarcelona will make their Miami side the best in the league instantly. All will take notice as Barca Miami will leave everyone in their dust. They will be the toast of the league and the ones everyone will hate out of pure jealousy. THAT'S the hope for MLS. And DonGarber knows this.That's why Miami will be a shoo in for expansion. Accept fate!

  14. Cavan says:

    What are you talking about? Sure. Great. Miami gets another shot. San Jose got a second chance so why not Miami?

    However, they will be an expansion team. Expansion teams don't leave everyone in the dust. They will also be subjected to the same salary cap rules that all the other teams will be. They won't be able to buy the trophy like Barcelona and Real Madrid do in La Liga.

    Finally, I really hope the team does not have “barca” anything in its name. We already have a Chivas. One co-branding/red headed stepchild is enough for one league and that spot is already taken. Chivas USA's problem has been that it's had to get over the impression that it's only for Mexican-American fans rather than for everybody. In the first year, the brand turned off Chivas fans since they were a weak expansion team. A team with Barca in its name will have the same issues. The team should be identified with Miami, not Barcelona.

  15. Cheekymonkey says:

    The problem is… towards the end of the season no one wants to watch soccer on American Football grid lines…. its horendous!!!

  16. Angelo says:

    Cavans first comment wins COMMENT OF THE YEAR.

  17. ultratroll says:

    Memo to Cavan: FC Barcelona can send their fourth tier players to play in Miami, play within the cap, and still KICK MAJOR ASS!!! That their game plan. They know what they're doing. Be prepared and be warned for the new superclub that will transform MLS to the upperechelons of American sports and bring fear and jealousy to the other teams and their fans: Miami Barca. That's the gospel.

  18. Ian says:

    speaking as someone who just now started to watch MLS:

    1. the only way I can explain my new found obsession with the MLS is because we, Seattle, FINALLY got our own team in the top league. Without it, MLS is still nothing to me. Sad, simple truth.

    2. Totally agree with Cavans first comment as well. The one thing that I personally feel that American sports gets right is the salary cap. It's the one thing I hate about other leagues. Sure, it sucks that MLS's cap is unfortunately low. But it preserves the hope that your team will always have a chance.

    3. Does anyone else find it sad that soccer fans are constantly pouting that our game isn't as good as that overseas? What's with the inferiority complex? Soccer is the beautiful game because, no matter if its a pick-up game or an EPL match, its fun to play and watch. I just hope someday we don't have to compare ourselves to the rest of the world, because really, it's sad to think that someone receives less joy from soccer just because they know they aren't the best. These people haven't come to love soccer for what it is. They just love being associated with world-class winners just so they can look down on everyone else.

  19. Cavan says:

    Ian's point three gets comment of the year. Their leagues have been around for A HUNDRED YEARS. Their teams are also up to their ears in debt. Their leagues won't be haunted for decades by the ghost of a boom and bust failed league.

    I get liking the EPL if you're English. That makes sense if you grew up supporting a team. Otherwise, I just think you're trying to look down on someone rather than just enjoying soccer. Now, if you watch the EPL and MLS, more power to you. Everyone I've taken to a DC United game has always had fun and come back again. That includes both non-MLS soccer fans and non soccer fans. It's fun. Isn't that why we like soccer?

  20. Pingback: MLS Thursday is no more | Major League Soccer Talk

  21. JM says:

    FSC’s Prem viewers aren’t close to MLS… you are comparing FSC’s viewers to MLS households… multiply your households by 2.6 viewers and you have the MLS viewers.

  22. Gabe says:

    For starters we need to have some talent here in the U.S and we need to teach the new generation the art of the sport so they can develop a passion for the game or at least watch the games andbecomefans of the sport. I like sports in general, From Boxing to Cycling. I watch them too. but in this case we need to market to the younger generation. Ihave noticed it harder in urban cities as oppeses to suburbs. Never knew why.

  23. Tom says:

    Should we really be surprised? I agree with what Stanley wrote…about six months ago. It’s pretty elementary logic: what is the one thing that the MLS has over foreign leagues? You can actually GO to MLS games. If the suits ever thought that television was going to do anything for them, then they were sorely mistaken. Nurturing the development of soccer culture in their own stadiums has always been of supreme importance, whether they recognized it or not.

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